On Christmas Eve day the LA Times published an editorial by Sam Harris, 10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism. While I found Mr Harris' commentary to be excellent I did not post on it because I didn't think the timing was very good. He begins by explaining what the atheist minority in the US is up against.
SEVERAL POLLS indicate that the term "atheism" has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president.He then goes on and attempts to dispel 10 commonly held myths about atheism. Now I doubt that he will convince any believers - to be a believer requires a closed mind. If you are willing to open your mind a little go read what Mr Harris has to say.
Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.
Another atheist speaks up today in the Washington Post, Daniel C. Dennett.
Not Yet The Majority But No Longer Silent
There are many more atheists and agnostics in the country than is generally recognized. For instance, we atheists and agnostics are as numerous as Southern Baptists, and we are also the fastest growing category–-faster even than the Mormons and the evangelicals.Sam Harris tells us that only 10% of Americans claim to be atheists. I suspect this number does not represent reality anymore than a poll taken 20 or 30 years ago would have represented the true number of gays. Out of necessity many of not most atheists remain in the closet, but that is changing. One reason may be the threat presented by the radical Christian theocrats to the secular tradition of the United States.
Why, then, are we atheists in general so unnoticed, and why is this changing? Since atheists, in general, think there are much more important and interesting topics to discuss than whether or not God -- which God? -- exists, we seldom raise the issue.
But recent trends in America have suggested to many of us that this diplomatic reticence has been exploited by sectarian ideologues, evangelists, politicians, and others intent on maintaining the illusion that we are a negligible fringe community, so we are encouraging those who agree with us to come out of the closet.
My late father who was very religious himself used to say that some of the most moral people he knew were atheists because they had no one to forgive them. In that spirit I'm going to close with the last two myths in Sam Harris' commentary.
9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.
Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.
In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?
10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.
If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.
We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.